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© maksim-pasko-dreamstime.com Electronics Production | January 21, 2013

Dreamliners and malfunctioning batteries

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner's battery problem might be caused by overheating.
Within a short period of time, two separate Boing 787 have had their lithium-ion batteries malfunction. In Boston, the battery of a 787 caught fire while on the tarmac; the second aircraft reported that smoke from the battery found its way into the cockpit, forcing the the pilots to make an emergency landing in Japan. This has led to a grounding of Dreamliners worldwide, while authorities investigate.

We've seen this before when it comes to lithium-ion based batteries: though not in aircraft, but in smartphones and laptops, were batteries randomly exploded or caught fire.

But is it really random? Lithium-ion batteries pack a higher energy density then other batteries, which means more energy and less weight, making the batteries the first choice for a lot of devices. But with the high density comes a weakness, the battery is also more sensitive to heat than other batteries, for example lead acid batteries.

Now imagine the amount of energy required to start something the size of a Dreamliner; and add the heat generated. We do not know for certain that this is what caused the malfunction on the Dreamliner, but Donald Sadoway, a battery researcher and MIT professor, told Businessweek that without proper cooling a li-ion battery can generate enough energy, to cause the battery to self-combust. “You’ve got to draw very, very high amperage for a very short time, so you’re generating a boatload of heat,” he explains.

The research conducted by Sadoway at MIT, aims to reduce the instability and flammability of today’s li-ion batteries.

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